Myths to Live By III


What we all today surely recognize is that we are entering – one way or another – a new age, requiring a new wisdom: such a wisdom, furthermore, as belongs rather to experienced old age than to poetically fantasizing youth, and which every one of us, whether young or old, has now somehow to assimilate. Moreover, when we turn our thoughts to religion, the first and most obvious fact is that every one of the great traditions is today in profound disorder. What have been taught as their basic truths seem no longer to hold.

Yet there is a great religious fervor and ferment evident among not only young people but old and middle-aged as well. The fervor, however, is in a mystical direction, and the teachers who seem to be saying most to many are those who have come to us from a world that was formerly regarded as having been left altogether behind in the great press forward of modern civilization, representing only archaic, outlived manners of thinking. We have gurus galore from India; roshis from Japan; lamas from Tibet. And Chinese oracle books are outselling our own philosophers.

They are not, however, outselling our best psychologists. And this, finally, is not surprising; for the ultimate secret of the appeal of the Orient is that its disciplines are inward-pointing, mystical, and psychological.


The artist, in the ancient world, was not a special kind of man, but every man a special kind of artist.


Whereas the Indian mind and Indian arts tend to soar in imagination out of this world of ten thousand things, the Chinese arts and artists of the Tao prefer to remain with nature, in harmony with its wonder. And as the old texts tell us of the ancient Chinese Taoist sages, they too were lovers of the hills and watercourses. They are generally pictured as having abandoned city living to retire alone into the wilderness, there to dwell in harmony with nature. However, in Japan this cannot be done. For there are there so many people everywhere that you simply cannot be alone with nature – at least, not for very long. Climb to the summit of even an inaccessible peak and you will find a jolly picnic party already up there before you. There is no escape there from mankind. There is no escape from society. Hence it is, that although the Japanese and the Chinese ideograms for the concept of “freedom” (Japanese jiyu; Chinese tzu-yu) are exactly the same in form, the Chinese by implication means liberation from the human nexus, but the Japanese, compliance with the same through willing devotion to secular activities: on one hand, freedom away from society, under the great vault of the skies, on the misty mountaintop, picking mushrooms (“No one knows where I am!”); and on the other hand, freedom within the undeniable bonds of the given world, the social order in which, and to the ends of which, one has been raised. Remaining within that field, one yet experiences and achieves “freedom” by bringing to it the full consent and force of one’s goodwill: for, after all, the life that is found on the mountaintop lives within the heart of man when in society too.

There is a curious, extremely interesting term in Japanese that refers to a very special manner of polite, aristocratic speech known as “play language”, asobase kotoba, whereby, instead of saying to a person, for example, “I see that you have come to Tokyo,” one would express the observation by saying, “I see that you are playing at being in Tokyo” –  the idea being that the person addressed is in such control of his life and his powers that for him everything is play, a game. He is able to enter into life as one would enter into a game, freely and with ease. And this idea is carried even so far that instead of saying to a person, “I hear that your father has died”, you would say, rather, “I hear that your father has played at dying.” And now, I submit that this is truly a noble, really glorious way to approach life. What has to be done is attacked with such a will that in the performance one is literally “in play.” That is the attitude designated by Nietzsche as Amor fati, love of one’s fate. It is what the old Roman Seneca referred to in his often quoted saying: Ducunt volentem fata, nolentem trahunt: “The Fate lead him who will; him who won’t, they drag.”


Some five hundred years after the Buddha’s life and passing (whose dates are now given generally as ca. 563-483 B.C.) – at just about the time, that is to say, of the opening of the Christian era in the West – there appeared in the Buddhist centers of North India a new trend in the interpretation of the doctrine. The protagonists of this later view were certain late followers of the Master who themselves had achieved illumination and could appreciate implications of the doctrine that had been missed by the earliest disciples. One did not have actually to leave the world as a monk or nun, they had found, to win the gift of illumination. One could remain in life, in the selfless performance of secular tasks, and arrive no less securely at the goal.

With this momentous realization, there moved into the center of Buddhist thought and imagery a new ideal and figure of fulfillment: not the monk with the shaven head in safe retreat from the toils and tumult of society, but a kingly figure, clothed in royal guise, wearing a jeweled crown and bearing in hand a lotus symbolic of the world itself. Addressing himself to the world of our general life, this figure is known as a Bodhisattva. He is one, that is to say, whose “being” (sattva) is “illumination” (bodhi), for as the word buddha means “awakened,” so Bodhi is “awakening, awakenment.” And the best-known, most largely celebrated, great wakeful being of this order is the beautiful saint of many a wondrous legend, known in Sanskrit as Avalokiteshvara. The name is generally understood to mean “The Lord who regards the world [in mercy].”The figure appears in Indian art always in masculine form; in the Far East, however, as the Chinese goddess of mercy, Kuan Yin (Japanese Kwannon); for such a being transcends the limits of sex, and the female character, surely, is more eloquent of mercy than the male.

The legend of this Bodhisattva tells that when he was about to achieve complete release from this vortex of rebirths that is our world, he heard the rocks, the trees, and all creation lamenting; and when he asked the meaning of that sound, he was told that his very presence here had given to all a sense of the immanence of nirvanic rapture, which, when he left the world, would be lost. In his selfless, boundless compassion, therefore, he renounced the release for which he had striven through innumerable lifetimes, so that continuing in this world, he might serve through all time as a teacher and aid to all beings. He appears among merchants as a merchant, among princes as a prince; even among insects as an insect. And he is incarnate in us all whenever we are in onverse with each other, instructing or mercifully helping.


In my own writings I had already pointed out that among primitive hunting peoples it is largely from the psychological experiences of shamans that the mystic imagery and rituals of their ceremonial life derive. The shaman is a person (either male or female) who in early adolescence underwent a severe psychological crisis, such as today would be called a psychosis. Normally the child’s apprehensive family sends for an elder shaman to bring the youngster out of it, and by appropriate measures, songs, and exercises, this experienced practitioner succeeds. As Dr. Silverman remarks and demonstrates in his paper, “In primitive cultures in which such a unique life crisis resolution is tolerated, the abnormal experience (shamanism) is typically beneficial to the individual, cognitively and affectively; he is regarded as one with expanded consciousness.” Whereas, on the contrary, in such a rationally ordered culture as our own – or, to phrase the proposition again in Dr. Silverman’s words, “in a culture that does not provide referential guides for comprehending this kind of crisis experience, the individual (schizophrenic) typically undergoes an intensification of his suffering over and above his original anxieties.”


Source: Joseph Campbell – Myths To Live By

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